State working to end 'unacceptable standoff' over road projects

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association instituted the work stoppage on Sept. 4 after multiple failed attempts to bargain a new contract with the Operating Engineers Local 324. A prior, five-year deal expired in June.

Gov. Rick Snyder's office on Wednesday said it's working to bring an end to the "unacceptable standoff" between unionized road builders and industry contractors that's stalled road work projects throughout the state. 

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association instituted the work stoppage on Sept. 4 after multiple failed attempts to bargain a new contract with the Operating Engineers Local 324. A prior, five-year deal expired in June. 

The rift prompted the shutdown or partial halt of more than 150 road projects in southeast Michigan.

"We are continuing to work with MITA and OE324 to find a way to get them back to work on the road projects quickly and end this unacceptable standoff," said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, in a Wednesday email to The Detroit News. 

Last week, Snyder urged the union and contractor association to resolve their differences and get the projects back on track. The governor noted at the time that he'd offered up staff from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to help mediate a deal.

The governor also had been consulting with the state's attorney general about whether the lockout was really a labor dispute. If not, Snyder and the Michigan Department of Transportation could intervene with penalties or other actions.

The Attorney General's Office is advising the governor's staff and MDOT on how to best handle provisions of their contracts, but does not have the authority to declare whether something is a labor dispute, Adler noted.

The state, he said, is evaluating whether MDOT can withhold extensions. If so, contractors could be facing an additional financial burden due to penalties incurred for a project being late, he said. 

"Sometimes, even when extensions are granted, there can be additional costs, and it’s also possible that contractors could be held responsible for those as well," he said. 

Adler added: "The best solution is to just get everyone back to work right away. We have a historic level of road funding available. There is absolutely no reason why any road work should be stalled."

Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the engineers, said Wednesday that the union shares the governor's concerns and has met with Snyder's office "to discuss ways to get our members back to work on the roads."

"Since this was an involuntary layoff, it is ultimately the contractors who have the ability to restart work," McKernan said. "The work never should have stopped, and every day the contractors refuse to lift the lockout is another day Michigan motorists, taxpayers, and our members suffer."

Mike Nystrom, MITA's executive vice president, said Wednesday that the association has always been willing to talk.

"We recognize and understand the frustration from the governor's office but have conveyed to them that we're more than willing to work together to try to figure out a way to get both sides talking," he said. "We've asked them (the union) to talk all summer long and they've refused."

In the spring, MITA mailed the union an offer it believed was "fair and equitable" to maintain the prior five-year agreement apart from proposed wage increases in a deal to run through May 31, 2023. Workers in all classes would have received a $2-per-hour increase annually for the first three years of the contract and $1 per hour more annually for the final two years.

But the union declined to acknowledge MITA's contract offer. Instead, it's leaders crafted a separate agreement in cooperation with some contractors who are not MITA members.

MITA represents hundreds of companies who contract to build state roads and bridges, water and sewer systems and utilities.

The association holds power of attorney for its member companies for labor agreements with the Operating Engineers, Laborers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Cement Masons. The member firms are responsible for thousands of construction jobs in Michigan each year.

Historically, bargaining has taken place in a multi-employer setting where they have come together with the union to reach an agreement. The industry, through MITA, has negotiated more than a dozen contracts with five unions for more than 50 years. 

"There are no winners in a labor dispute. The contractors are in business to rebuild Michigan's infrastructure, employees work hard every day to earn a paycheck and the driving public and the businesses surrounding these projects are obviously impacted," said Nystrom, who contends that "disruptive and coercive" tactics by the union "brought this situation on."

McKernan said despite MITA's claims, the union doesn't consider following the advice of its legal counsel as coercive or disruptive. Union road builders, he noted, continued to work on projects throughout the summer even after the prior contract expired. 

"They are the misleading words of an association covering for the damage they have done to the workers, drivers and taxpayers of Michigan through bully tactics and layoffs," he said. 

On Tuesday, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts joined the fray, calling on Snyder to declare a state of emergency in his city because of road work delays on Interstate 696. The project there was scheduled to open to traffic on Nov. 4 with some work planned into late November, according to MDOT.

A shutdown of I-696 has impacted a 10-mile stretch of the freeway between I-94 and 75 that was shut down in April for an overhaul by MDOT. 

The existing closures on I-696 would have been in place in Warren right now even without the road building dispute, Adler noted in response to Fouts' demand. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation has said that the lockout impacted most of its projects. 

MDOT has more than 140 construction projects across the state in the works or planned for the year, including Rouge River Bridge repair along I-75, road reconstruction and maintenance on Interstate 696 and road and bridge reconstruction on I-96.

Under MDOT contracts, road construction companies are required to maintain safe work zones for motorists in active project sites at all times until the project is completed, officials said, even during delays due to labor disputes.

The contracts also call for MDOT to grant extensions because of labor disputes, similar to provisions for acts of God, officials have said.